Why Do Christians Call God Father?

By

To call God “Father” is one of the great privileges of being a Christian. But this can be confusing to the world and even to some inside the church. Why do Christians call God “Father” when he is not our biological dad?

The Child Calls to His Father

The power of the word “Father” is its specificity. We have only one biological dad; usually, that’s the only person we will call “Father.” Sometimes, if our dad has died or departed, we will use the term “Father” for an adoptive dad.

Sponsored

Because of this specificity, the word “Father” is also intimate and powerful. Everyone uses the term, but when I hear my child use it, I know he is speaking to me. My children’s friends can speak to me, but they use a different name. Only my child has the privilege to call me “Father.” As a Dad, I am attuned to hearing the sound of his voice, and when he cries out, I respond with greater speed and attentiveness than I do to other people.

God As Father in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, God is only belatedly called a Father. The first reference to God’s Fatherhood is in Moses’ farewell speech to the nation of Israel:

Is not he your father, who created you
who made you and established you?
(Deuteronomy 32:6)

Here God is a Father metaphorically, creating and establishing the nation of Israel as a human father creates and establishes his sons. Much of the Old Testament refers to God’s Fatherhood in this way, as the Father of Israel.

But there are also a few key passages where God is identified as a personal Father. For example, consider God’s description of David and his messianic line:

He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father,
my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’
And I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the kings of the earth.
(Psalm 89:27-28).

Christians understand that these passages point to Jesus.

God As the Father of Jesus

Jesus refers to God as Father, not only as the Father of Israel but also as his personal Father. In heaven, God was a Father, eternally begetting his Son. On earth, too, Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and had no human father. The twelve-year-old Jesus points this out in his dialogue with Mary in the Temple. Mary asks, referring to Joseph:

Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress? (Luke 2:48).

But Jesus responds by pointing out that his true Father is not Joseph, but rather God.

Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? (Luke 2:49).

Thus Jesus speaks repeatedly in the gospels about his Father in heaven. He also speaks directly to God as his Father, most dramatically while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane:

And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36).

Here Mark preserves the Aramaic phrase “Abba,” which means Father. This is the direct, personal cry of a child to his father. God’s fatherhood is not a metaphor but rather the center of the Trinitarian mystery of the eternal Father who sent his eternal Son to earth to die for our salvation.

God As the Father of Christians

We Christians call God our Father because we have been joined to Christ by adoption. Jesus died the death we deserve so that we might be joined to him and adopted into God’s family. Paul explains our adoption this way:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:4-6).

And again:

You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:15-17).

Notice that Paul explicitly uses “Abba,” that same Aramaic word so closely associated with Jesus’ cry to God as Father. Because we have been born again by the Spirit, we are now children of God and cry out to him as Abba, Father.

Praying the Our Father

This is why Jesus taught his disciples to pray the “Our Father,” also known as the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-15, Luke 11:2-4). Praying to God directly as their Father may have initially seemed strange to them. They did not yet fully understand how Jesus would incorporate them into his own family. Even today, most Christians learn the “Our Father” before they understand how we have become God’s children.

But once we understand, we can see the remarkable privilege of praying to God as “Our Father.” We cry out as a child to a Father who knows his child’s voice. In calling God “Our Father,” we enjoy an intimate relationship with our Creator.

And, of course, the only reason we have this intimacy is the sacrifice of Jesus. He died on the cross so that we might have a Father in heaven, not only metaphorically but really, according to our adoption in his Spirit.

Objections to God as Father

There are a variety of objections that are made to calling God “Father.” Here we’ll consider three.

One objection comes from other religions, most notably Islam, which believes that fatherhood is too biological a concept to attribute to God.

A second objection comes from Christians concerned with those who experience abusive human fathers, wondering if calling God Father will falsely attribute human sinfulness to God himself.

A third objection comes from our secular culture, believing that God as “Father” is too gender-specific, and ought either to be eliminated or broadened with the use of the term “Mother,” for example, in praying an “Our Mother” prayer.

Responses to Objections

The Christian response to these objections is as follows:

  • First, the Islamic objection is refuted by the doctrine of the Trinity. With the Trinity, we understand that fatherhood is not merely a metaphor for God but rather God’s eternal identity as the eternal Father to the eternal Son. Incidentally, this was the same response of the early church to the Arian heresy.
  • Second, the concern about abusive human fathers is actually related to the Islamic objection because it presumes that God’s Fatherhood is derivative of human fatherhood. In fact, it is human fatherhood that is derivative of divine fatherhood. Because of sin, however, this human fatherhood is corrupted and cannot be used as a perfect template to understand God. While this objection is, therefore, incorrect theologically, it does have pastoral force, and care should be taken to explain this theology to those with a strongly negative experience of human fatherhood.
  • Third, it must be admitted that the Christian theology of divine gender is not egalitarian, and those who seek a feminine deity will not find it in the Christian faith. This granted, it is also true that the masculine terminology of God’s Fatherhood does not imply that God is biologically male. God the Father is a Spirit without a body and, therefore, is neither biologically male nor biologically female.

Hope for the Fatherless

God has a special heart for the fatherless.

From the beginning, God commanded “justice for the fatherless and the oppressed” (Psalm 10:18). He established himself to be “Father of the fatherless and the protector of widows” (Psalm 68:5). And even today, he instructs the church through the apostle James:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27).

Moreover, there is a sense in which we are all fatherless. We are all children of sinners. Even the best of human fathers are corrupted by sin. And this is because of the sin of our first father, Adam.

Therefore we are both called to care for the fatherless and to receive the care of our Father in heaven. This, indeed, is the gospel: that though we have sinned and been sinned against, though we are flawed fathers and the fatherless, God has sent his Son to make us his sons, to adopt us and draw us to himself as our heavenly Father.

Cover image by Negative Space for Pexels, courtesy of Canva.

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

Comments

Please comment with both clarity and charity!

Subscribe to Comments
Notify of

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments